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Dublin: 17 °C Tuesday 23 July, 2019
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Campaigners want to 'bust some myths' about presidential voting rights for citizens abroad

We’ve been promised a referendum on the issue later this year.

The Home to Vote movement has given extra impetus to the campaign.
The Home to Vote movement has given extra impetus to the campaign.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

CAMPAIGNERS IN FAVOUR of extending the right to vote in presidential elections are meeting with TDs and Senators today ahead of the autumn referendum

The Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) group are hoping to get clarification from politicians about how much they intend to campaign and whether they will “bust some of the myths” that have already been spread about the upcoming vote.

VICA also want Irish politicians to highlight that most democratic countries allow citizens living abroad participate in democracy in some way.

The group recently marched in London’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and will this evening hold an event for supporters in Dublin’s Irish Emigration Museum.

The government has yet to publish the precise proposal but has signalled that passing the referendum would grant the right to vote in presidential elections to all Irish citizens abroad.

The proposal is in line with recommendations from the 2013 Constitutional Convention.

As things currently stand, Irish people who have emigrated cannot vote if they are resident outside of the State more than 18 months. 

Campaigners who have pushed for the change say Irish citizens living abroad deserve to have a say in the president who represents them.

“The President, according to the Constitution is the head of State for the whole Irish nation, which is not defined by its geographical borders,” said VICA’s Sarah Cantwell, who is originally from Offaly but lives in London.

So we’re not asking to have any kind of say in Dáil elections or anything like that. But what we are asking is to have a say in who represents us. If people in Ireland elected a clown as president I’d have to do a lot of explaining to my colleagues here in London as to what Ireland voted for and why.

VICA have been stepping up their online campaign in recent days and have been particularly focused on answering queries from people who are concerned about the numbers of Irish citizens who could be entitled to vote for president in 2025.

President of Ireland on a State Visit The referendum is about voting rights in presidential elections. Source: PA Images

Last year’s Irish presidential election saw 3,229,672 people who were entitled to vote, with just under 44% choosing to do so.

The Department of Foreign Affairs estimates that there are approximately 1.47 million citizens resident outside the State, excluding those living in Northern Ireland.

VICA argues that the number of Irish citizens abroad who would actually choose to participate would likely be a small fraction of that.

It points to international examples, such as in Canada, where out of 2.8 million Canadians living abroad who are entitled to vote only 11,000 did so in 2015.

Cantwell says international experience shows that only citizens abroad who are the most engaged politically are likely to go through the process of registering to vote and doing so.

“Quite a small number of citizens abroad actually take up the vote, so what we’re really asking for is to give that chance to the most engaged citizens like ourselves abroad, those that really do care and who want to be involved.”

Members of our campaign, we’re all Irish citizens we have family and friends at home, most of want to return home at some stage, so we’re not asking for something that we think is going to be harmful for Ireland, in fact we think it’s going to help Ireland.

The States

Enda Kenny visits US Enda Kenny in 2017 St Patrick's Day parade in Philadelphia. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

Enda Kenny first signalled the government’s intention to hold a referendum on the issue while in Philadelphia during his final St. Patrick’s Day trip the US as taoiseach in 2017.

On that occasion, Kenny said it would would be a “profound recognition” of Irish citizens abroad but the choice of venue was questioned by some supporters who felt it suggested the vote was about recognising the Irish diaspora, rather than more recent emigrants.

The debate around voting rights for citizens abroad received a further push as part of the Home To Vote movement, which saw Irish citizens travelling back home to cast ballots in the Marriage Equality and Eighth Amendment referendums.

Another VICA spokesperson, Alan Flanagan, says the reason the campaign was so impactful was precisely because it was so hard for people to take part. 

“Home to Vote is such a big and lovely thing but the reason it was so is big because it is very visual. And the reason it was so visual is because it was so bloody difficult.”

Someone had chosen to come back and had chosen to spend all that money and probably take leave as well to come home just because they’ve emigrated in the last 18 months. 

Cantwell agrees and says it’s particularly unfair because it disenfranchises people based on their means.

There is a parallel to draw in the abortion referendum, in that it was one thing for the people who could afford to travel to England to get an abortion and another thing for those who couldn’t.

“In the same way there were a lot of people who couldn’t get the time off work but who were cheering it on from abroad. It’s absolutely not fair that your ability to vote should be based on your ability to fly home.”

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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